Resolving Balkan War Crimes: Croatia, It's Your Turn

Last Thursday's arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who commanded an army known for rape and ethnic cleansing, most notably the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, does not mean that the great crimes of the Balkan wars are now resolved. Several thousands of Serbs, (despite the efforts of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe for which I worked for in Sarajevo for nearly four years), who have been prevented from reclaiming their homes in Croatia, are among the victims of the 1991-1995 war who still await justice. With Mladic apprehended, it is time to refocus on Croatia's failings, especially as the country strives for membership to the European Union.

Eager to create homogenous "homelands," Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs engaged in campaigns of ethnic cleansing in which the majority of one group drove the minorities out. Serbs expelled Bosniacs and Croats; Bosniacs expelled Croats and Serbs; and Croats expelled Serbs and Bosniacs. It was a tactic that, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), displaced 2.5 million people, close to 40 percent of the former Yugoslavia's population. Sixteen years after the end of hostilities, thousands still live as refugees. Most are ethnic Serbs from Croatia living, often in camps, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

In an effort to reverse the effects of ethnic cleansing, the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which brought an end to the four-year Balkan bloodshed, made the "right to return" to a pre-war home a priority. Article One of the Agreement's Annex Seven states that "(a)ll refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to their homes of origin... they shall have the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities since 1991 and to be compensated for any property that cannot be restored to them."

For hundreds of thousands expelled from homes in Bosnia and Serbia, these rights have largely been restored. Yet almost no action has taken place in Croatia, where the International Committee for Human Rights estimates 30,000 former Croatian residents, mainly Serbs, are unable to return or be compensated for lost property.

The restoration of property rights in the former Yugoslavia has been painstaking. That is because the majority of homes belonged to the Yugoslav state rather than any one individual. Under the umbrella of a socialist system, there were few instances of private property. Yugoslavia's leaders handed out "occupancy" rights to residents in public housing. Those rights included a stipulation that any individual absent from his or her publicly or "socially" owned home for more than six months would forfeit it.

As Yugoslavia disintegrated, this stipulation became a spoil of war that each ethnic group used to its own benefit. Members of the dominant ethnic group seized and occupied homes vacated by those that they chased away. Unlike in Bosnia, where the international community found it a moral imperative and, more importantly, had the authority to reverse this phenomenon, Croatian authorities considered ethnic cleansing a fait accompli. They, as my former OSCE colleague Rhodri Williams who worked on property return issues notes, "refuse to consider restitution or even compensation for terminated property rights," of those that lived in its territory before the war.

The EU, to which Croatia is eager to join, is uneasy about Croatia's inaction. It has called the country's treatment of its minorities discriminatory. Last year the European Committee on Social Rights found Zagreb's inaction on this matter in violation of its obligations under the European Social Charter. In 2009, the UN Human Rights Committee deemed its termination of property rights to violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In order appease Brussels, the Croatian government has made cosmetic overtures to previous residents. It has offered "housing care programs" for displaced persons. These programs would identify or build housing that refugees can rent or buy, and thereby encourage return. Little has come of this scheme. There has been a lack of information and construction has been slow. Most of the few buildings now finished are in remote areas, where there are no jobs, resources or social structures such as schools or hospitals for a returning Serbian refugee.

This is unjust. As Williams has said, it "represents a double standard, considering that (Bosnia) has faced unyielding international pressure to resolve property claims for (pre-war, socially-owned) apartments." Serbia, as we have seen, has faced similar pressure to hand over war crimes suspects. The arrest of Radovan Karadzic three years earlier and Ratko Mladic's last week is proof that Serbia is, at last, complying with the will of the international community.

If Croatia wants an entry pass to the EU club, it must be held to the same account as its former Yugoslavian neighbors. Anything less would not only be unfair to the victims of the Balkan wars, it would put Europe's commitment to justice and loud proclamations about human rights in doubt. Elmira Bayrasli was the Chief Spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Mission to Bosnia from 2003-2005. She writes and works on global development issues.